15 December, 2007Issue 7.1History

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The Life of a Death

Maya Alapin

Emily Wilson
The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint
Profile, 2007
224 pages
£15.99
ISBN 978-1861977625


Though the Athenian people swatted Socrates, their notorious gadfly, dead over two thousand years ago, his buzz still harasses the Western conscience. Socrates, labelled a pest by his fellow citizens, has made more noise from the grave than in his own lifetime. The legend of his execution is one of the most familiar biographical sketches from antiquity known to the modern age. As told and retold since the fourth century BC, Socrates wandered the streets of his native Athens, discussing with his fellow citizens about their beliefs and the quality of their lives. He questioned the tenets of their conventional morality and religion, and he was repaid for his rebellious ways by being condemned to death by a jury of Athenian men. He was executed with a lethal dose of hemlock and died in a prison cell, surrounded by his closest friends.

In her second book, The Death of Socrates, Emily Wilson, an Oxford graduate (Balliol ’92 and Corpus ’94) and current Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reflects on the problems surrounding capital punishment of democratic dissenters, taking the death of Socrates and its interpretation over the ages as her focal point. The book presents a historiographical account of interpretations of Socrates’s legendary execution from classical Greek to post-modern times. Throughout the text, a sense of dismay at the decline of Socrates’s influence on the lives and thoughts of today’s students is palpable. Without the use of footnotes or endnotes, she approaches primary texts that span over two thousand years with broad strokes. By showing why great thinkers have been drawn to consider the meaning of Socrates’s life and death, she argues in favour of a revival of the tradition of this study. Her plea is openly motivated by an interest in the fate of modern democracy: ‘the trial and its outcome represent a political problem with which all subsequent democratic societies have struggled: how to deal with dissent.’

Critics will argue that a return to Socratic and Platonic studies that the book evokes is nostalgic, even clichéd, their assumption being that the remoteness of these subjects is of no help to us now. But Wilson takes on her dissenters, demonstrating that Socrates’s thinking was anything but dated or doctrinaire. According to Wilson, what he offered that was unique—and sorely lacking today—is a daily commitment to seriously confront life’s major questions. In this way, Socrates’s method was unlike the modern approach to justice via highly-developed academic disciplines and social and political organisations. Instead, Socrates’s method involved face-to-face investigation, querying the populace on subjects such as morals, actions, and the education of their children. He did not sugar-coat his judgments; instead he responded to the statements of his peers with barefaced honesty, even when in discussion with famous actors, politicians, statesmen, and philosophers. To his contemporaries, he was a strange kind of celebrity, a familiar touchstone for constant self-examination, regardless of whether they respected his approach. In this sense, Socrates was the lifeblood of his era’s newly-burgeoning democracy: he asked loudly and clearly about matters of justice and good living, despite the ill-repute it brought.

Commitment to life’s gravest concerns was not the product of Socrates having a divine gift, or the result of living in a Golden Age of ‘deep questions’, as is often assumed. He was after answers to large-scale questions about good and righteous citizenship because it was during his lifetime that democracy was born and burgeoned. He recognised the importance of the age his peers were heralding, and served as its most aggressive promoter, as well as its harshest critic. Democracy opened discourse concerning the personal and social duties of the citizen for the first time in Western civilisation. This approach, new in its time, illustrates a shift in human consciousness that is most apparent in the early Platonic dialogues. They present Socrates asking basic questions like: how ought we to live in society? What makes a life just? Wilson deals with such aporia by showing how confronting them, despite their apparent impenetrability, is necessary for every democratic citizen—both in Socrates’s age and now. Her approach is not political in its content; rather it reads as an attempt to provide a historiographical basis for current day democratic citizens to understand the roots of their oft-forgotten ideals. Like Plato, Socrates’s main biographer, Wilson does not present a doctrine, but rather a series of vignettes and views of public opinion that may serve as touchstones for community- and classroom-based discussion.

Plato writes in the Phaedrus that no serious person would ever put a philosophy of life into writing; all we ever have in print is a record of thoughts to jog our memories later in life. In this vein, Wilson’s survey of interpretations of Socrates’s death throughout Western philosophy provides a common language with which the fundamental premises of democratic government may be discussed. By watching a single event’s re-interpretation over the ages, she gives the Western reader an opportunity to understand contemporary social and political history. The book thereby invites us to reclaim and internalise our shared origins and ideals as democratic citizens.

Though Wilson rarely indulges in discussion of the modern political problems she is trying to illuminate, she openly and courageously explains the motivation for her academic work: ‘the right of prisoners to a proper hearing [which Socrates himself had, despite the outcome] has been a key tenet of almost all democratic…governments in western history (only recently violated, in America, in the case of the Guant√°namo Bay prisoners)’. Democracy really is imperilled when public execution is exchanged for closed-doors trials and un-publicised capital punishment. Guant√°namo-style ‘justice’ obscures its workings from public media, and thus brings about the end of freedom of information. Even Socrates had that.

A dry and desperate cynicism both diminishes the book’s objectivity and heightens its rhetorical power. Acerbic reference is made to the lacking moral seriousness of the modern world. Wilson acknowledges the challenge of taking matters of justice and death seriously in a country where ‘adults consume mass-produced children’s drinks’ and where many books on Socrates preserve the ‘geniality of the Oprah Winfrey show’. Such comments show Wilson to be a fighter against the Don Delillo-esque society in which she finds herself. She deliberately writes broadly to educate her society about important daily tensions that sugary-drinks and trite television cause one to forget. For a culture that needs to be spoon-fed its own history, Wilson wisely offers a brilliantly illustrated book with depictions of Socrates through the ages, and she includes surprising and illuminating references to Erik Satie, the New Age movement, and even Woody Allen’s use of Socrates as a symbol of the unlikely possibility of ‘bringing down philosophy from heaven to earth’. Her attempt to keep Socrates relevant without watering-down the gravity of his story reveals an accomplished scholar who must be at her best at the front of a classroom.

The book’s success may in part be credited to Wilson’s ability to present Socrates’s death in both ancient and modern contexts: does the modern euthanasia movement (once called the ‘Hemlock Society’) base itself on Socratic ethics? Did Socrates die a martyr, or did he die willingly, to escape physical suffering in old-age, as is argued by Xenophon? Did it make sense for Cato to try to imitate a Socratic death by violently tearing out his own bowels? Does this distorted Roman appropriation of the calm and painless death of Socrates betray the willingness of any culture to re-write its own history? Wilson especially notes that this last distortion has survived even in modern times. By being called the ‘ancient Jesus’, Socrates’s death has been compared by Christian writers to a bloody crucifixion, which is unfaithful to the way in which Socrates actually died. Similarly distorted is Montaigne’s interpretation of Socrates’s public tribunal, character and his death as the desirable life and death for an ordinary, pagan man. Finally, Nietzsche’s paradoxical love-hate of Socrates is tackled, along with interpretations by Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Popper. Wilson manages to move her readers into considering these interpretations and many others by using familiar terms to discuss an ancient affair; for example, she suggests that Socrates’s death may be understood as Martin Luther King-style ‘civil disobedience’.

Aside from trenchant political commentary and a unique approach to academic writing, Wilson also comfortingly displays qualities of a discriminating Classicist, offering poignant observations on the details of Socrates’s life based on a careful reading of the original texts. She reveals some of the same chutzpah that she admires in other commentators by making original observations on the details of Socrates’s life, such as his ‘babyish or toddler-like characteristics’, and the way in which his poverty might be interpreted as ‘Marie Antoinnette-ish’. Few commentators explicitly state, as Wilson does, that Socrates was ‘a celebrity’, an often-neglected fact that is indispensable to understanding the meaning of his death as it reflected on his position in Athenian society. Though the book lacks detailed discussion of Plato’s arguments, it presents basic philosophical notions in a refreshingly clear way—for example, Wilson addresses the idea that the dialogues essentially deal with ‘the question of whether bad things can happen to good people’.

The analysis ends by transcending political commentary and literary criticism and returning, in true Platonic style, to metaphysical questions about the meaning of death. This topic is particularly relevant in the early Platonic works, as Socrates argued that to live a philosophical life is to prepare for death at every moment, letting go of attachments to the material world. Wilson focuses on the painlessness of a death by hemlock, and cites scholarly accounts to demonstrate this. Socrates died as he lived: calm, pain-free, and in quiet conversation with his closest friends. By emphasizing these conditions, Wilson raises the possibility of a philosophy of life that does not disavow the inevitable—as Socrates’s death did not—but approaches death as natural event that need not be feared. By reviving interest in Socrates’s death, Wilson does just what Socrates did: she provokes the audience to consider the meaning of life in light of the inexorable fact of death, to understand life as a process of dying and being dead. This Socratic philosophy of life returns the reader to an image of the democratic man worthy of repeated depiction: despite his public presence, he lives and dies privately and in close community with his friends, fearless of the afterlife because he is certain of his attempt to have lived a just life.

As her major point of contact with Socrates are Plato’s dialogues, Wilson’s book falls into the field of Classics. However, the writing does not follow the usual scholarly format, and it may be ignored by the academic Classics community as a result. In particular, the lack of traditional Stephanus page references (except for one that escaped deletion on page 118) is frustrating to any serious reader of Plato. Moreover, why Wilson has chosen to use this touching and trenchant study as a sounding board for a feminist agenda is a major point on which the Classical scholar in particular will be disappointed. It is well known that there are just four words (‘let her go home’) in Plato’s account of Socrates’s last days in the Phaedo that pertain to the way in which he treated and viewed his wife—and indeed these are the only words in the whole Platonic corpus that reference Socrates’s relationship to this woman. These four words are ambiguous at best, and it is certainly not necessary to read them as Socrates’s disdain of family life or of familial obligations, much less of a hatred of women in general. It is altogether possible that these words are meant to indicate quite the opposite—that Socrates spent the entire last night of his life with his wife Xanthippe, and that the subsequent comments on ‘pleasure and pain’ could be read as highly suggestive of Socrates’s deep love for and attraction to his wife. It is unfair to Plato’s presentation to depict Socrates as a misogynist, as it creates a disdain for the character that is imposed on the text. The final paragraph of the book, which could have been a resounding exhortation based on 200 plus pages of excellent, far-reaching analysis, is marred by an aggressively moralistic reference to this ‘fact’.

Despite this scholarly weakness, the book successfully presents an enormous body of information with ease and style. Any reader wishing to live a good life, whether undergraduate, emeritus, or non-specialist, will benefit from Wilson’s time-travels through the great minds of our civilization, as they consider the meaning and repercussions of the now timeless death of Socrates.

Maya Alapin received her MPhil last year, and is now working on her DPhil in Classical Languages and Literature at Balliol College, Oxford. Her main area of interest is Greek philosophy, and her research focuses on the literary structure of Plato’s Republic.